Between 2005 and 2010 the National Archives in Dublin put the returns from the 1901 and 1911 Irish census online, with a search engine allowing those interested to key in any name, place, or occupation and then search further for an ancestor, a neighbor’s ancestor, or for anyone else. One can, for example, search for the total number of female servants in County Cork in 1901, and then trace them again in 1911 to see what happened to them, or look for Tony Blair’s grandmother Sarah Lipsett of Ballyshannon, County Donegal. The website, because it is free of charge, has become as popular with the curious browser as much as the serious researcher. Slowly, however, those of us who have searched the site looking for information about our families have become warier and wiser.
In 1990 I published a novel, The South, which dealt, among other things, with the tensions between Catholics and Protestants in the Slaney valley near Enniscorthy in Ireland where I was born. As comic relief, I had an elderly Protestant woman, who had once held land in the valley, on hearing in 1971 the name of a Catholic man, remark that a man of the same name “was the only man in Enniscorthy at the turn of the century who could sign his name.” She then added: “The rest of them just wrote X my dear, imagine that.”
This was a joke and a way of establishing the distance between the Anglo-Irish and the locals. Most people in the town were, I knew, literate at the end of the nineteenth century. I was particularly thinking about my grandfather’s family on my father’s side who, although they had no money, owned many books.
My grandfather on my mother’s side was called Thomas O’Rourke. I could not find him in either the 1901 or the 1911 census. And then one day I remembered that older people in the town often referred to my mother’s family as “Rourke” rather than “O’Rourke,” “O’Rourke” being somewhat grander and more formal.
I knew that my grandfather died in 1936 in his late forties. I found him as Thomas Rourke in the 1901 census aged fourteen, living in the Ross Road in Enniscorthy with his father, John Rourke, his mother, two sisters, and two brothers. Ten years later, he was still there, his mother having died—his father was described as a widower—and one brother having died or left home. His age was given this time as twenty-two. His father’s age was given as sixty.
With each census return you can move from the information to a scan of the actual form itself with the handwriting of the householder. At first, when I looked at the Rourke return for 1901 I was impressed by the quality of my great-grandfather’s penmanship and was having thoughts about the education of laborers—he …